Tom Carhart’s Lost Triumph

by EJW on September 5, 2005 · 1 comment

I’ve always been one to buck settled history. In my mind, the only way to make sure that history remains a living, breathing, evolving thing is to challenge its settled assumptions. Properly and responsibly done, revisionism can be a powerful and welcome tool that causes us all to sit back and ask whether we should change the way we look at things. Consequently, I’ve always been known as one who’s not afraid of tilting at windmills.

However, doing so carries a great deal of responsibility. Whenever we challenge settled interpretations of history, we must do so carefully. Words are an extraordinarily powerful tool, and the choice of words can play havoc on people and on settled interpretations. Consequently, the only appropriate way to revise settled history is to do so responsibly and where there is ample evidence to support those revisionist interpretations of history.

I wish I could say that Tom Carhart’s recent book, Lost Triumph: Lee’s Real Plan at Gettysburg–and Why It Failed is a worthy piece of revisionist history that adds something to the existing body of knowledge. Sadly, I cannot. Carhart’s work is revisionism of the worst sort–it’s grossly irresponsible, and there is not a shred of evidence to support Carhart’s contentions. What astonishes me most of all is that people have been flocking to buy this piece of tripe and that prominent and well-respected historians such as James McPherson and John Keegan have put their imprimatur on something that has no basis in fact.

Carhart’s theory is that Pickett’s Charge was to be coordinated with Jeb Stuart’s thrust at the Union rear with his cavalry. According to Carhart, the one true hero of the Battle of Gettysburg–the man who saved the Union–was Brig. Gen. George A. Custer. Thus, the clash on East Cavalry Field takes on an importance that it never had. Even for the most ardent cavalry admirer–like me–East Cavalry Field, while tactically important, has never been much more than a sideshow to the big show, to borrow a line from Sam Watkins.

The problem with this theory is that there simply is not a single shred of evidence to support it. There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that Stuart’s movement was in any fashion coordinated with what we now know as Pickett’s Charge. Not to be deterred by the facts, Carhart makes the preposterous and wholly unsubstantiated claim that the historical evidence was either destroyed, or even more absurd, that it was hidden and kept from Jeb Stuart to protect his delicate ego. Never mind that there is not a single stitch of evidence to support any of this. Where there is no evidence, Carhart just makes it up, inventing conversations that never took place to suit his purposes.

Where there is historical or documentary evidence that rebuts his theory, Carhart either manipulates it to suit his purposes, or he launches personal attacks on them. An excellent example of this is Brig. Gen. David M. Gregg, who commanded the Federal forces on East Cavalry Field. Gregg, according to Carhart, lied in his official report of the action in order to steal the credit that rightfully belonged to George A. Custer. The problem with this is that even the most staunch Custer supporter–Capt. James H. Kidd, who was Custer’s hand-picked successor to command the Michigan Cavalry Brigade when Custer was promoted to division command–saw it otherwise. Here’s what Kidd had to say about this:

“Thus, it is made plain that there was no ‘mistake’ about it. It was Gregg’s prescience. He foresaw the risk of attempting to guard the right flank with only the two decimated brigades of his own division. With him, to see was to act. He took the responsibility of intercepting Kilpatrick’s rear and largest brigade, turning it off the Baltimore pike to the right, instead of allowing it to go to the left as it had been ordered to do, and thus, doubtless, a serious disaster was averted. It makes us tremble to think of what might have been, of what inevitably must have happened had Gregg, with only two two little brigades of McIntosh and Irvin Gregg, and Randol’s battery, tried to cope single-handed with the four brigades and three batteries, comprising the very flower of Confederate cavalry and artillery, which those brave knights–Stuart, Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee–were marshaling in person on Cress’ Ridge. If Custer’s presence on this field was opportune, and, as has often been said, providential, it is to General D. M. Gregg to whom, under Providence, the credit for bringing him here is due. Gregg was a great and modest soldier; let us pause a moment before we enter upon a description of the coming battle, to pay him the tribute of our admiration. In the light of all of the official reports, put together link by link, so as to make one connected chain of evidence, we can see that the engagement which took place twenty-six years ago, was, from first to last, a well planned battle, in which the different commands were maneuvered and placed with the same sagacity displayed by a skillful chess player in moving the pieces upon a chess board; in which every detail was the fruit of the brain of one man, who, from the time when he turned Custer to the northward until he sent the First Michigan thundering against the brigades of Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee made not a single false move; who was distinguished not less for his intuitive foresight than for his quick perceptions at critical moments. That man was General David McM. Gregg.”

Unlike Tom Carhart, James H. Kidd was there, and was an active participant in that battle. Kidd had the benefit of his own observations, as well as of speaking with many other veterans. Kidd also worshipped George Custer. Kidd also said, “This conclusion has been reached by a mind not–certainly not–predisposed in that direction, after a careful recent study, and review of all the information within reach bearing upon that eventful day. If the Michigan Brigade won honors there that will not perish, it was to Gregg that it owed the opportunity; and his guiding hand it was that made its blows effecctive. We shall see how, later in the day, he again boldly took responsibility at a critical moment and held Custer to his work on the right, even after the latter had been ordered by higher authority than he (Gregg), to rejoin Kilpatrick, and after Custer had begun the movement.”

It bears noting that these passages by Kidd come from his speech at the 1889 dedication of the monument to the Michigan Cavalry Brigade that stands on the spot where the 1st Michigan Cavalry’s charge crashed into the onrushing Confederate cavalry on East Cavalry Field. This address has been published a number of times, including in Kidd’s well-known memoirs and also in a MOLLUS paper, and was readily available to Carhart. He never mentions it in his book.

Another point that needs to be made here is that Gregg actually usurped Custer twice during the fighting on East Cavalry Field. On two separate instances, Gregg issued orders directly to the commanders of first the 7th Michigan and later the 1st Michigan Cavalry regiments to charge. On both instances, Custer joined the charges, but he never ordered them. While he was undoubtedly brave and undoubtedly provided inspirational leadership to his Wolverines that day, the fact is that Gregg ordered those charges, not Custer. There is plenty of historical evidence to prove this.

Quite disenguously, Carhart then argues that Gregg–who, by the way, was known as one of the modest and self-effacing officers to serve in the Army of the Potomac–intentionally downplayed Custer’s role in order to play up his own role. This outrageous, slanderous claim flies directly in the face of ample historical evidence: David Gregg was remembered fondly by his men as “tall and spare, of notable activity, capable of the greatest exertion and exposure; gentle in manner but bold and resolute in action. Firm and just in discipline he was a favorite of his troopers and ever held, for he deserved, their affection and entire confidence.” Gregg knew the principles of war and was always ready and eager to apply them. Endowed “with a natural genius of high order, he [was] universally hailed as the finest type of cavalry leader. A man of unimpeachable personal character, in private life affable and genial but not demonstrative, he fulfilled with modesty and honor all the duties of the citizen and head of an interesting and devoted family.” A former officer later commented that Gregg’s “modesty kept him from the notoriety that many gained through the newspapers; but in the army the testimony of all officers who knew him was the same. Brave, prudent, dashing when occasion required dash, and firm as a rock, he was looked upon, both as a regimental commander and afterwards as Major-General, as a man in whose hands any troops were safe.” His men called him “Old Reliable.” Does that sound like a man who would downplay Custer’s role just to advance his own interests?

Carhart also claims that Stuart’s decision to order one of his batteries to fire four shots in the four directions of the compass was a signal to Robert E. Lee that he was in position and that Lee could then order the grand assault that became Pickett’s Charge. There is not a single shred of documentable evidence to support this claim. None at all. Further, historian Bill Styple has recently published an excellent new book titled _Generals in Bronze_, which consists of transcripts of interviews conducted by the eminent sculptor, James Kelly, who sculpted the monument to John Buford on the Gettysburg battlefield. One officer interviewed by Kelly was Alexander C. M. Pennington, who commanded the battery of horse artillery assigned to serve with Custer’s brigade. Here’s what Pennington had to say about this episode:

“When Jeb Stuart rode round our army at Gettysburg without striking us on the morning of July 3rd, he found that he could not locate us. Now [Maj. Henry] McClellan who was on his staff told me this story. He said that Stuart looked in every direction but could find no sign of our stroops, so he ordered a gun out and ordered it to be fired in different directions in hopes of getting an echo or a reply from one of our guns, and then through his glass locate the smoke.

He fired in one direction, and then [received] an answering gun. He said that shot from that gun entered the muzzle of their gun, and knocked it off the trunions, breaking two wheels. Now, he said, this seems remarkable, almost incredible, but when he told me that story he said, ‘I assure you on the honor of a gentleman that it is true.’ And the singular fact is that it was my gun that did it. I was standing with Custer when I told my gunners to fire at them. He was an Irishman by the name of

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Pat K September 18, 2005 at 9:49 pm

Thanks for the well crafted review, as well as the warning about deleting poor reviews in order to over-weight the positives. I


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